Government advisers referred to PM as ‘Dr Death’ during pandemic, Covid inquiry told

Government advisers referred to Rishi Sunak as “Dr Death” during the pandemic, WhatsApp messages shown to the Covid-19 Inquiry have revealed.

The inquiry also heard that putting the country into full lockdown to mitigate the impact of the virus was a “necessary evil”.

The correspondence between epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds and Professor Dame Angela McLean – now chief scientific adviser to the Government – took place during a meeting in September 2020.

Dame Angela (pictured) messaged Prof Edmunds, referring to “Dr Death the Chancellor”, the inquiry was told.

Prof Edmunds told the inquiry the reference “could well be” about the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, which was devised by then-chancellor Mr Sunak and deployed a month earlier in a bid to kick-start the restaurant industry following lockdown.

Asked about the “public impact” of Eat Out To Help Out, Prof Edmunds said: “To be honest, it made me angry.”

He said the Government had been “taking the foot off the brake” in easing restrictions but “to put the foot on the accelerator” seemed “perverse”.

In response to seeing the WhatsApp messages, Naomi Fulop, a spokeswoman for Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice UK, said the inquiry “has made clear that there was absolutely no consultation with the Government’s scientific advisers on Eat Out To Help Out”.

“It’s unbearable to think that if it wasn’t for Rishi Sunak’s reckless, unscientific and callous approach, my mum might still be with me,” she added.

“When our current chief scientific adviser has referred to our Prime Minister as Dr Death, how can any of us have faith in our Government if another pandemic strikes?”

Prof Edmunds said he did not want to blame Eat Out To Help Out for the second wave, but said the “optics” around the scheme were “terrible”.

He said he understood the restaurant sector needed support, but that this “was not really just supporting them”.

“They could have just given them money,” he added. “This was a scheme to encourage people to take an epidemiological risk.”

In response to the comments, inquiry counsel Hugo Keith said: “To make it clear, there is very little or there’s weak epidemiological evidence to show that infections in the areas in which people took up the scheme went up significantly. Your point is at the optics of it.”

Prof Edmunds said advisers were measuring public behaviour in August and at the time there was a change.

He added: “I wouldn’t say it was Eat Out To Help Out, but it was contributing.”

Downing Street said it would not be providing a “running commentary” on Covid inquiry evidence.

Asked by reporters what Mr Sunak made of the “Dr Death” label, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said: “He will be providing evidence to the inquiry and fully participating, but I’m afraid I’m not going to get drawn on individual bits of evidence that are reported from it.”

Dame Angela also referred to a “f***wit” in her messages, which Prof Edmunds inferred was in reference to Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford.

Prof Heneghan also gave evidence on Thursday.

He was critical of the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and was part of a group of experts who wrote to the UK’s chief medical officers in September 2020, calling for targeted measures such as segmentation and shielding of vulnerable groups instead of local or national lockdowns.

Prof Edmunds called the full lockdown in March 2020 a “necessary evil”.

“It was so urgent. The pressure … projecting forward you could see that the NHS would come under severe strain very quickly.

“And so action had to be taken. And although it was an extreme action, and in many respects regrettable, I think it was a necessary evil.”

The inquiry continues.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2023, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) UK Government.